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A TRAVELER TO D-DAY battle sites will see a lot of concrete. After the Germans rapidly conquered Western Europe in 1940, they spent four years fortifying the coast with thousands of forbid ding watchtowers, bunkers, gun emplacements, and resistance nests. Those ramparts were intended to repel Allied invaders, allowing Germany to concentrate its armies in the East against the Soviet foe, in hopes of outright victory or some kind of compromise or stalemated peace. The “Atlantic Wall,” the Nazis dubbed it.

The Wall was enormous, expensive—and absolutely worth less. When the Allies landed in Normandy, nowhere along those five beaches did the Atlantic Wall seriously hinder them.

No one should be surprised. Military walls have a checkered history. The Great Wall of China, the granddaddy of them all, worked well enough when the emperor was taking care of business and keeping his rampart in repair and fully defended by well-trained armies. When he dithered or failed, the barbarians—Huns, Mongols, Manchu— crossed the wall and conquered. In the 1930s, France had the Maginot Line, and I am sure readers of World War II know how well that worked out. Indeed, the Maginot Line may actually have hurt France, lulling the French people into a false sense of security and keeping the army from raising more divisions.

The Atlantic Wall was more of the same. Propaganda photos and footage showed an apparently impregnable line. Look at those images of big guns more closely, however, and you notice something curious: They are often of the same big gun. The Nazis could have requisitioned every artillery piece and cubic meter of concrete in Europe and still not had enough to fortify the more than 2,000 miles of Atlantic coast. Even in the most threatened sector of northern France, defended by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Army Group B, the Wall had immense gaps, and much of what did stand remained unfinished at the time of the Allied landing. Despite Rommel’s legendary energy and eye for terrain, the Wall was a work in progress, and would have been no matter when and where the Allies decided to land.

Those well-versed in the D-Day landings might well ask “But what about Omaha?” Far from illustrating the Atlantic Wall’s power, the near-disaster of the American landing at Colleville sur-Mer actually proves the opposite. The ordeal the initial assault waves endured had less to do with German fortifications than with the presence at Omaha Beach of a full-strength German division, the 352nd—a unit seasoned on the Eastern Front.

Tourists today marvel at the sheer monumentality of the German forts, especially Resistance Nest 62 (Widerstandsnest, or WN 62), overlooking Omaha Beach— and the forbidding bunker is a sight to behold. But like the Atlantic Wall as a whole, WN 62 was far less than it seemed. It did hold an assortment of mortars and antitank and antiaircraft guns, but the small garrison was there mainly to direct fire by inland batteries, not to oppose a landing. One of its two casemates was empty—the Germans never had enough artillery pieces to go around. WN 62’s main contribution to the defense was essentially one man with a machine gun, Private Heinrich Severloh, who later claimed to have fired 12,000 rounds from his MG42 that day. (See “Things Were About to Get Ugly” in World War II’s special publication, D-Day: This Great and Noble Undertaking.)

Severloh’s fight makes the point that in the west in the summer of 1944, Germany did not need more concrete or bunkers or towers. The Germans needed more soldiers, more men willing to wield weapons, more divisions willing to die to hold a piece of ground. They needed more Severlohs. A mighty construction effort had built a wall that the Germans could never hold, given the manpower constraints of a two-front war.

Walls rarely work in war, and certainly not under modern conditions. You want to defend territory? Build an army.


Originally published in the December 2014 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.